As I was reading the blog “Brain Pickings” this morning, I learned some cool distinctions between empathy, sympathy and caring. Here are my main takeaways:
Empathy is a word that is less than 150 years old. The concept of empathy was established to help artists literally “become” their subjects. The theory was that if an artist could embody their subjects (“become the character”- was a phrase I heard a few Oscar recipients use), then the artist could more accurately portray the feelings, emotions, and idiosyncrasies of their subjects.
Empathy is not my strong suit. I am aware of this deficiency, and I am actively working to cultivate empathy in my life. My nature is to treat and view others the way I view the world and the way I want to be treated. For me, the first step to feeling like I am connecting with someone is to feel like I can understand them and in some ways “become” them.
I strive to feel what others feel. I have worked on being more empathetic so that I can try to help others, but I have always missed the true meaning of empathy.
I know empathy because I instinctively cry at powerfully positive or negative outcomes. I feel what other people are feeling. I have a love/hate relationship with ESPN’s 30 for 30, the In Memoriam section of the awards shows, and any deeply powerful documentary. I cry like a proud mother, a grieving child, or an overwhelmed teenager at meeting Justin Bieber.
Does crying at positive or negative outcomes make me empathetic? I’m not sure. But what I do know for sure is that when I cry I hide my face, breathe deeply, walk away and pretend that it is not happening. When I am by myself, I embrace my feelings, and cry hard. This empathetic cry feels good and releases negative energy.
But my cathartic crying, while proving I have empathy for others, is not helping anyone but myself. I can become them, so why am I having such a hard time relating to them. This iterative process led me to the question: “If I can become someone, then what does it take to help them?”
For me, the word Sympathy has always connoted some type of weakness. I know that I am wrong about this, but I struggle to disentangle myself from my preconceived biases. Today, I am embracing a concept of “sympathy” as taking empathy to the next level. Not just becoming the other person or feeling what they feel, but actually being compassionate about their situation.
It is difficult for me to take this step, because I feel like it is giving in. I am submitting to the negative feelings (mostly) that allow me to sympathize. I know that I am wrong about the inherent negativity of Sympathy, but it is hard for me to get over. I want to be positive. I want to overcome and struggle to win.
Sympathy is level two Empathy because it requires not only to feel the good, but to be open to the weakness and fallibility in both the good and the bad.
A friend of mine is going through a tough patch in his life. He is struggling with fear, shame, pride, acceptance, control (and lack of control). He is in a bad situation of his own making, and there are clear paths to success (although nearly all are painful and cause pain to others). It is a truly awful situation, but I can relate. I have felt fear, shame, pride, acceptance, control (and lack of control). I find it easy to be empathetic. I can become him, put myself in his shoes. I can feel his feelings and I know him well enough to even take on his beliefs and childhood pre-programmed institutions. It is much harder for me to feel sympathy. I feel bad for him (maybe that is sympathy), but I cannot quite get myself to feel sympathetic without building a plan in my head to fix the problem.
The third tool of Empathetic living appears to be Caring. I experience caring when I value the outcome. I love serving people, and I enjoy the positive actionable results of happiness, thankfulness, joy, sharing, etc. For me, caring comes naturally. For many others, maybe sympathy or empathy comes naturally. Caring is easy, but it has less positive impact, and sometimes a negative impact, without Empathy and Sympathy.
If Empathy is becoming someone else and Sympathy is taking their feelings and personalizing them so that you can feel for them (on your own behalf) outside of Empathy, then the third layer is Caring about them enough to do (or not do) something to help them. My challenge in this scenario is caring so much that I become part of the problem.
It may sound odd, but I truly believe that I would benefit from controlling my Caring. By starting with Empathy and moving next to Sympathy I provide myself better data before jumping in with the Caring. The information I receive from following the process of moving to Empathy first, Sympathy second and Caring last (rather than just skipping straight to the Caring) is helping me with my friend today.
Although I cannot “be” him, I can become him. This is giving me information and making me feel what he must be feeling – right now, not very good. Second, I gave myself permission to feel Sympathy. I translated the feelings I received by being Empathetic to my own personal feelings of doubt, anger, frustration, and I am allowing myself the space to be negative without feeling hopeless. Finally, I am taking the Care and love that comes naturally to me and applying it through the first two filters. So far, I have avoided trying to “solve” the problem and I have avoided “dominating” the situation.
I hope I have the Empathy, Sympathy and Care to help him find his path and his solution.